Friday, May 30, 2008

Buttermilk Cornbread

Corn has long been a staple in Native American cuisine and is prepared in a variety of ways including ground into cornmeal and baked or fried. Cornbread was popular among European settlers and later in the American Civil War due to its cheapness, versatility and ease of preparation. Today, it is especially popular in the South and often identified as soul food.

Over the years regional variations in preparation have developed. Northern cornbreads are often sweetened with sugar, honey or molasses; Southern versions are flavoured with lard or bacon drippings; and newer Southwest variations include jalapeno peppers, cheese and corn kernels. There are also variations in the types of corn common in each region – yellow corn in the North, white corn in the South and blue corn in the Southwest.

Cornbread can take many forms beyond the common baked variety. The batter can be turned into jonnycakes, corn pone and hush puppies among others. Italian cornmeal, known as polenta, is often served as mush but it can be fried and baked similar to cornbread.

Serves 8

3/4 cups cornmeal
3/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 small eggs
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
8-ounces whole kernel corn, drained (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder.
3. In a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar. Add buttermilk, butter and corn.
4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and pour batter into a greased 8-inch cake pan.
5. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top is golden. Cool in the pan and cut into slices to serve.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Watermelon Feta Salad

Last weekend I hosted a baby shower brunch for a friend who is due in September. Thankfully, people ate heartily and we were left with few leftovers. As I began to pack things up, however, I realized that I still had half an uneaten watermelon that I had used as a base for fruit spears.

Watermelon, served in thick slices, is a treat that I associate with summer picnics and barbeques. Its size and juiciness lend itself to big outdoor gatherings. However, our guests has dispersed and there was no way that my roommate and I could consume all that melon.

Luckily, I was able to donate most of it to an undergraduate party. What remained I turned into a watermelon feta salad. I must admit I’d never eaten such a salad – I’d only been intrigued by the combination which I’d heard of over the years. I had assumed it was ‘California cuisine’, but web research leads me to believe it’s a traditional Greek dish. I couldn’t find conclusive evidence of this, so I’d welcome any comments or historical insight.

Incidentally, there are many other ways to serve watermelon – in soups, pies or grilled with meat. Maybe this summer I’ll post some more watermelon recipes.

Serves 4

1/8 of a watermelon, cut into 3/4 inch cubes (3-4 cups)
6 ounces feta, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/4 red onion, separated into rings (optional)
olive oil
2 cups spinach leaves
balsamic vinegar (optional)
lime (optional)
black pepper, to taste

1. Mix watermelon, feta and red onion. Coat with olive oil and mix well.
2. Serve on a bed of spinach leaves or mix with spinach leaves.
3. Dress with balsamic vinegar or lime juice and freshly ground black pepper.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

As a child, I didn’t like mushrooms – I found them too earthy. It wasn’t until I grew oyster mushrooms as part of a science fair project, that I came to appreciate their taste and texture. When I was a vegetarian, mushrooms (and eggplant) were staple items since most people didn’t know what else to feed me. Since Portobello mushrooms are hearty and meat-like, I spent many dinners eating grilled Portobellos, Portobello burgers and Portobello casserole.

As it turns out, three of the most common mushrooms sold in Western supermarkets are actually different varieties of the same mushroom (scientific name Agaricus bisporus). The button mushroom is a young, unopened form of the Crimini mushroom. If a Crimini is left to grow, in 2 or 3 days it will quadruple in size and become what we call a Portobello or Portobella. While the origin of the name ‘Portobello’ is not known, the mushroom is likely named after the road in London famous for selling antiques.

Like criminis and Portobellos, button mushrooms were traditionally brown in color. A chance white mutant discovered on a Pennsylvania mushroom farm became very popular with consumers, which is the origin of the ubiquitous white button mushroom.

There is a centuries-old tradition of collecting wild mushrooms for human consumption. Unfortunately, there are a number of poisonous varieties and no clear way to distinguish edible from inedible. Mushroom cultivation began in France when Olivier de Serres, a sixteenth century soil scientist, found that wild mushroom mycelium could be transplanted and cultivated. Due to pathogens, however, widespread cultivation did not occur until the creation of a sterile pure culture in 1893 by the Pasteur Institute.

This recipe is from my multi-talented friend Sarah.

Serves 4

4 portobello mushroom caps
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces fresh spinach leaves
1 cup ricotta cheese or 7 ounces low-fat cream cheese
1/8 cup fresh parmesan, grated
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 chilli powder (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 egg, beaten (omit if using cream cheese)
8 tablespoons bread crumbs (can use non-gluten bread crumbs), seasoned with salt and pepper
1/4 cup mozzarella, shredded

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Using a paring knife, remove stems from all mushroom caps. Wipe down mushrooms with a wet cloth to remove all dirt. Do not wash or rinse mushrooms. Set aside.
3. In a medium skillet, heat oil and sauté garlic until fragrant. Add spinach and cook until shrunk down. Remove from heat.
4. In a small bowl, mix ricotta cheese or cream cheese and parmesan. Season to taste with garlic salt, dried basil, chilli powder, black pepper and salt. Mix well.
5. If using ricotta, mix in egg.
6. Add spinach to cheese mixture. Mound mixture into mushroom cap. Top with 2 tablespoons of bread crumbs per mushroom, followed by mozzarella cheese.
7. Bake in a cake tin or roasting pan for 15-20 minutes until the mozzarella has turned golden brown.
8. Cool for 5 minutes and serve warm.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pimm's Cup

Spring has sprung, and in these times of rising temperature and humidity, nothing quite quenches my thirst like a Pimm’s Cup. While this drink will be well known to British and Commonwealth readers, those from the United States may be scratching their heads.

The posh British answer to “an ice cold beer”, Pimm’s Cup is a cocktail made with Pimm’s No. 1 Cup (commonly referred to as just Pimm’s), a gin-based liqueur infused with a secret recipe of herbs, and served with cucumber and fruit. Incidentally, cucumber replaces the traditional borage leaves which provided a touch of green to the original drink. One might describe it as a British sangria, associated with high society events like Henley, Ascot, Glyndebourne and May Balls.

Pimm’s has humble roots – created by James Pimm, a farmer’s son who went on to own an oyster bar in London’s financial district (known as ‘The City’). The drink became wildly popular in the 1850s and 1860s and inspired a chain of Pimm’s Oyster Houses. Five other Pimm’s drinks were invented, each based on a different alcohol. They have now almost all been phased out except for brandy and vodka versions which are sold in small quantities. The brand is now owned by Diageo, one of the world’s largest alcohol conglomerates.

I last had Pimm's in San Francisco after an excursion to a lovely farmer's market. I've included photos (below) of some of the interesting items we saw there including 'torpedo' onions, huge raspberries and fresh chickens (I was a bit disturbed by the human-like nails on their feet). We also saw kumquats (above) which inspired our non-traditional addition to the Pimm's Cup recipe.

1 part Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
3 parts lemonade or ginger ale, chilled
bunch of mint
fruit including strawberries, Granny smith apples, navel oranges, lemon or any other fruit that appeals (we included kumquats)
cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into cigar-sized wedges

1. Mix Pimm’s and lemonade or ginger ale in a large pitcher. Infuse with mint leaves.
2. Slice up fruit – lemons and oranges in cross-section, kumquats in half, strawberries in half or quarter and apples in thin wedges.
3. Serve over ice in highball glasses. Garnish with a wedge of cucumber.